December 28, 2006

A Dark Deja Vu in Somalia

Analysis: The war between Islamist rebels and neighboring Ethiopia recalls an era when the agendas driving Africa's conflicts were never exclusively local, even if most of the victims were


Dec. 27, 2006
To many Africans old enough to remember the Cold War, the bloody conflict currently unfolding in Somalia will be awfully familiar. Back before the Berlin Wall fell, localized power struggles all over the continent often turned into full-scale regional wars when the protagonists cast themselves, or were cast — however improbably — as torch-bearers for Washington or Moscow. Such association would bring boundless diplomatic and financial support, not to mention boatloads of weapons and other military assistance, enabling local strongmen to wage self-serving wars for years on end. There's no Cold War any longer, of course, but in the case of Somalia, the "Global War on Terror" may be having a similar effect.

The U.S. has backed Ethiopia's military intervention on behalf of the beleaguered and unpopular — but internationally recognized — Somali government, in what looks set to be a protracted war that could draw in most of Somalia's neighbors. Washington's reason for supporting the offensive, rather than calling for an end to hostilities, is that the enemies of the Ethiopians and the Somali government are an Islamist movement viewed by the U.S. as in cahoots with al-Qaeda.

But the "war on terror" prism conceals the complexity of a conflict based on clan, political and regional rivalries that, in some cases, date back to the 1960s. And regional analysts fear that the tension will be exacerbated rather than resolved by the responses of outside players.

While the U.S. and Ethiopia have backed the Somali government and the warlords that operate under its umbrella on the banner of fighting al-Qaeda, the Islamists have allegedly rallied financial and military support from such quarters as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Iran by painting themselves as victims of an Islamophobic Western conspiracy. And Osama bin Laden certainly helped Ethiopia and the Somali government make their case for U.S. support when, in October, he warned Western governments to stay out of Somalia.

Ethiopia is not simply acting as Washington's regional policeman, however. It has a long-running border dispute with Somalia that led to two years of open warfare in the late 1970s, and it sees the nationalist inclination of the Islamists — and their vow to take control of the Ogaden desert from Ethiopia — as an immediate threat to its own interests. (The Islamists actually back secessionist insurgents in that region.) Given Ethiopia's intervention on behalf of the government, it comes as no surprise that Addis Ababa's fiercest foe, neighboring Eritrea, is supporting and arming the Somali Islamists.

For all the involvement of outside players, however, the Somali conflict remains a domestic power struggle at heart. It pits the Transitional Federal Government, a product of years of painstaking horse-trading among rival clan warlords, against the Council of Islamic Courts, a loose Islamist alliance strongly nationalist in character — which has vowed to break the power of the warlords and unite all of Somalia under Sharia law (although it happens to be led by clan rivals of the dominant clan in the government camp).

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the Islamists' displacement of hated warlords in southern and central Somalia was largely welcomed by the population. However, the strictures they have imposed on the population in the name of a fiercely conservative interpretation of Islam have also generated resentment. But the regional and international context of Somalia is quite different from that of Afghanistan a decade ago: The Islamists cannot prevail as long as Ethiopia is willing to lend the beleaguered government its military muscle — well-armed and trained by U.S. advisers, in contrast to the ragtag and mostly teenage light infantry of the Islamists.

But it is equally unlikely that Ethiopian military power will subdue the Islamist challenge inside Somalia. Indeed, the government's reliance on forces of the old enemy is unlikely to endear it to the Somali citizenry. Although Ethiopia promises to withdraw its forces within days, they had been active in Somalia for months before their presence was officially acknowledged, and a speedy withdrawal would leave a vacuum that the Islamists would once again fill. Yet having effectively repelled an Islamist advance on Baidoa, the Ethiopians risk losing much of their tactical advantage if they tried to capture Islamist strongholds, particularly the capital. Their goal, instead, according to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is to weaken the Islamists militarily in order to force them to negotiate with the government from a weaker position. But the fierce fighting last weekend and the passions stoked by open Ethiopian intervention may militate against any new compromise.

Instead, the escalating war will likely ensure that Somalia remains a failed state for the foreseeable future, a battleground not only for local clan and political rivalries but also for regional and international strategic "great games." There are unlikely to be any clear winners anytime soon, but the losers almost certainly will be the Somali people, who after more than 16 years of war, warlordism and famine, can only look forward to more of the same. (Time Magazine)

1 comment:

OromiaTimes said...

The horn of Africa - a region ringing to sound of cross-border conflict
Thursday December 28, 2006

A peninsula of East Africa that juts into the Arabian Sea. The term also refers to the greater region containing Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. It covers 2 million sq km and has a population of about 86.5 million. Sudan and Kenya are sometimes included.
Somalia’s main religion is Islam (Sunni), with a small Christian minority. About half of Ethiopia’s population are Muslim and half Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Nearly half of all Eritreans are Coptic Christians and most of the rest are Muslims. There are also Catholic and Protestant minorities.
Eritrea is one of the world’s most aid-dependent nations. Ethiopia receives the lion’s share of European development aid to sub-Saharan Africa and foreign donors finance about one-third of its annual budget. Aid for Somalia has dropped off since a disastrous and bloody international intervention in the 1990s.
The rise of the Islamists, who control much of the south after seizing Mogadishu from United States-backed warlords in June, has threatened the Government’s attempts to reimpose central rule on a country in chaos since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Before the latest fighting, the interim Government was confined to the provincial town of Baidoa.
The Government arrested thousands of Opposition members and others after two bouts of violence following May 2005 parliamentary elections. At least 82 people were killed in clashes in the capital, Addis Ababa. Some have suggested nearly double that number died. Ethiopia also has active rebel groups, including the Oromo Liberation Front, which represents the country’s largest ethnic group and is fighting for independence for the Oromo region. The Government of Meles Zenawi says Eritrea backs the OLF, which Eritrea denies. The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which wants self-determination for Ethiopia’s ethnically Somali Ogaden region, is also active.
The Government has been holding 21 politicians and journalists for five years without trial following a crackdown on dissidents and independent media. Before the September 2001 crackdown, the media had played a growing role in fostering open dissent in Eritrea, ruled by President Isaias Afwerki since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year struggle.
Ethiopia and Somalia have been rivals throughout history. Ethiopia has sent troops into Somalia to attack radical Islamic movements, wary they could stir trouble in the ethnically Somali regions on its side of the border. Several times from 1992 to 1998, Ethiopian soldiers attacked members of al-Itihaad al-Islaami, a militant Somali group. The Islamist leader in Somalia, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, was head of its military wing during that time. The US has accused Eritrea of shipping arms to Somali Islamists. Eritrea has long denied any involvement in Somalia, but reports to the United Nations Security Council have documented numerous weapons shipments by Eritrea to the Islamists.
In 1998 the town of Badme was the flashpoint for the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war which caused 70,000 deaths and ended with a 2000 peace deal under which both sides agreed to accept an independent ruling on their border. It is heavily guarded by both sides and monitored by a UN mission with 2300 peacekeepers. Ethiopia rejected the border as set out by an independent commission in April 2002 and Eritrea refused to consider any changes. The commission has given Ethiopia and Eritrea a year to demarcate the border according to its proposals.